Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Crimea: flashpoint towards another war?

I’ve been taken to task by a friend for not backing the obvious will of the people in Crimea, for reintegration with mother Russia. That will was expressed in the referendum held there on Sunday 16 March. The result, we’re told, was a 97% vote in favour of leaving Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation.

It seems likely to me that there really is a majority in favour of joining Russia in Crimea, which is 58% ethnically Russian. And I’m in favour of determining this kind of question by the will of the people: if it looks as though a majority of the Scots, for instance, want independence from the United Kingdom, I’d be strongly in favour of their being able to leave, though personally, as an Englishman, I’d dread their going: we’d be stuck with Tory governments for years or possibly decades.

In addition, Kruschev’s cavalier decision in 1954 to hand the region to Ukraine, without logic or reason and certainly without consulting the population, was high-handed and ill-advised. It makes sense to correct that abusive action now.

However, only a year ago, polls showed just 41% of Crimean voters favouring reintegration. And 24% of the population is Ukrainian, while 12% are Tatars, descendants of the original inhabitants, known to be strongly opposed to joining Russia. It seems highly unlikely that many of those groups voted ‘Yes’ on Sunday.

Indeed, even among the Russians, it seems unlikely that the proportion in favour of leaving Ukraine has grown quite so much in just a year, despite local misgivings when the Kiev government of Viktor Yanukovych, ethnically Russian strongman, elected legally though behaving abusively, was brought down.

So the chances that the vote really was 97% in favour strikes me as utterly unbelievable. Especially as no observers were allowed to supervise the voting or the counts. And as we all know, it isn’t the votes that count, it’s who counts the votes.

Besides that, with the Russian Navy still using the peninsula as its Black Sea headquarters, and with its soldiers in the streets – pretending to be local self-defence militias – it’s not clear to me that the referendum in any way represented an exercise in democracy. More of a simulation of democracy under the barrels of a gun. Indeed, the only concession to democracy seems to have been the Kremlin’s willingness to allow that 3% voted against; in Soviet days, majorities generally exceeded 99%.

Guardian picture of Russian forces on Ukrainian territory:
'democratic' muscle for the 16 March referendum
If that’s progress, it only shows how far today’s Russia still has to go.

Even more sadly, however, Putin’s behaviour doesn’t just recall the excesses of the Soviet Union. It recalls an earlier and even more disastrous spell in our recent history. As does the weakness of the Western response to Russia’s behaviour.

In 1936, long before Germany had rearmed, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, demilitarised by Treaty since the end of the First World War. The democracies protested but took no action.

In the spring of 1938, he annexed Austria to the Reich. The democracies protested but took no action.

In the autumn of 1938, he occupied the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia. The democracies had protested, but instead of taking action, had agreed to allow him to take over those areas. The agreement was the now infamous ‘peace in our time’ document.

In the spring of 1939, Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. The democracies protested even more loudly but again did nothing else.

Finally, in September 1939, he invaded Poland and the democracies at last reacted. This was the start of the bloodiest conflict in history, the Second World War (well, the European bit: it had been raging in the Far East for several years already).

The question remains, would that have been avoided had France and Britain, even maybe the United States, reacted powerfully to the occupation of the Rhineland?

Putin has in effect annexed Crimea. Now he’s talking about the calls of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine for reunification with the motherland, just as Hitler had justified his actions in Czechoslovakia in the name of the rights of the Sudeten German-speakers.

We’ve probably left it too late to do anything about Crimea. But if we do nothing about Eastern Ukraine, will we just slip further down the same slippery slope that took us to war in the thirties? And might a more powerful response stop that? Say, economic sanctions that bite, even if they cause us pain too, perhaps even the stationing of token troops in Ukraine, so that it’s clear that an invasion would bring Russia into conflict with far more than merely the Ukrainian army?

After all, surely we’ve learned from the Second World War, that the pain that awaits us at the bottom of slippery slopes may sadly be a lot worse than taking effective action now.


Anonymous said...

there was a coup in Ukraine and violence and coercion within their parliament as politicians were forced to hand over power to extreme right thugs. it was unconstitutional and undemocratic. it feels like all I have ever understood about democracy has been turned on its head. putin is no hitler and has acted within international law. without a shot fired.

David Beeson said...

There was an uprising in Ukraine, not a coup. I don't deny that it was of dubious legality but I believe that Ukraine is far from the rule of law, sadly, and Yanukovych was certainly not living within the law. For Ukraine to work its way towards a proper democracy and rule of law, it needs to be given the time to do so; it needs leaders who are committed to its happening (and that certainly doesn't mean Yankukovych or Timoschenko); and it certainly doesn't need military intervention by the much more powerful country next door.

Putin is acting precisely as Hitler did over the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, neither of which involved the firing of a single shot. Sadly, as you know, those two actions were followed by others that involved a great deal of shooting. I'm hoping Putin is satisfied with Crimea and leaves the rest of Ukraine alone.

Certainly, his behaviour is NOT compatible with international law. But the West is in no position to lecture anyone else about respect for international law.